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Chirac urges vigilanceover headscarf terror threat

PARIS, March 17 (AFP) – President Jacques Chirac called for heightened vigilance Wednesday, one day after an unknown group threatened to attack France unless it repeals a law which bans the Islamic headscarf in state schools.

“The terrorist threat calls for constant vigilance. This vigilance should be heightened in the current circumstances,” Chirac told a weekly cabinet meeting.

“Faced with terrorism, our democracies must reinforce their unity, defend their values, affirm their will and show their unflinching determination,” he said.

His comments came as police pursued their probe of the group calling itself
“Servants of Allah, the Powerful and Wise One”, which on Tuesday addressed a two-page letter to Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, five days after the devastating train bombings in Madrid that left 201 people dead.

Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy said that though the letter, written in French, differed from previous statements from Islamic extremists, it was still being treated seriously.

“We take every threat seriously,” Sarkozy told reporters, adding: “Our duty is to study and evaluate” every threat that is made against France.

But the minister added: “The initial assessment from the French intelligence services is that this threat does not bear the hallmarks of the usual written messages from Islamist extremists.”

Sarkozy said that despite the new threat France would maintain its current terror alert rating, which has the country on its second-highest level in train stations and airports, and at level three everywhere else.

In the letter, sent to Raffarin via two of the country’s newspapers, the group said “a new bridge was crossed in the war led by the coalition against Islam” when France adopted a law banning all conspicuous religious insignia in state schools.

“We had excluded you from a certain category of your miscreant brothers, due to your opposition to the unjust aggression of the coalition in Iraq, but you yourselves have decided to put your name on the list of Islam’s most bitter enemies,” the letter said.

“We will thus strike back – after the successes of our brothers since September 11, 2001, up until March 11, 2004 – at your incessant attacks, and ask Allah to sow the seeds of terror in the hearts of the French,” it added.

The letter was signed “Mosvar Barayev commando”, which – despite a spelling error – refers to Movsar Barayev, leader of a Chechen commando that took hundreds of people hostage in a Moscow theater in October 2002. Barayev was killed when Russian troops stormed the venue.

Judicial sources said experts were conducting tests on the letter in the hopes of finding DNA traces to lead investigators to its authors.

Raffarin urged the French people to remain calm as anti-terrorism police pursue their investigation, and said his government would continue to keep the public informed about the situation.

“I will say this forcefully, there is no need to be afraid,” he said.

On February 10, France’s lower house of parliament, the National Assembly, voted through the bill banning the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in state schools. The Senate approved the measure on March 3.

The law prohibits headscarves, Jewish skullcaps, large Christian crosses and other conspicuous religious symbols in state schools. The ban could extend to beards and bandanas if they are deemed to be religious in nature.

Thousands marched in Paris and in cities across the Arab world to protest the French legislation, with Muslims charging it was a form of discrimination.

In recent weeks, France’s national railway SNCF has also come under threat from a shadowy group calling itself AZF, which said it would set off explosive devices on the rails unless Paris paid it more than five million dollars.

The threat came five days ahead of the first round of regional elections in France, seen as a key mid-term test for Raffarin’s center-right government.


                                                              Subject: France news